The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is not only normalizing its relations with Turkey but actively supporting its economy. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed announced a $10 billion fund for investments in various sectors of the Turkish economy during his ice-breaking visit to Ankara on November 24, 2021.
This came shortly after the fall of the Turkish lira, which precipitated a crisis that challenged President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policies. The UAE’s strategic assistance to a major rival is consistent with a number of current geopolitical trends facing the two states in the region.
1. One-Upping the Saudis
When it comes to adjusting to regional change and transitions affecting the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), UAE foreign policy consistently tries to stay ahead of fellow GCC member Saudi Arabia.
UAE foreign policy consistently tries to stay ahead of fellow GCC member Saudi Arabia.
This was demonstrated in Abu Dhabi’s decision in late 2019 to cease its direct military role in the Yemen War when it determined that its armed intervention in collaboration with Saudi Arabia had failed. Similarly, the UAE overshadowed Saudi Arabia’s Israel relations by normalizing its ties with Tel Aviv through the Abraham Accords in August 2020. Riyadh declined to take this step, wary of Iran’s increased hostility which stemmed from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman being an Israel-leaning leader.
Furthermore, GCC tensions with Ankara were initially encouraged by Emirati—rather than Saudi—imperatives. Riyadh was far less hands-on than Abu Dhabi in opposing Turkish interests on key fronts such as Libya and the East Mediterranean region where the UAE and Turkey’s military backing for each other’s rivals were in very close quarters. Hence, the odds for Saudi-Turkish détente seemed greater than those of Emirati-Turkish easing.
However, a Saudi-Turkish reconciliation does not bode well with UAE’s interests under the new normalized GCC relations which were sealed by lifting the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt blockade of Qatar in January 2021 via the Al Ula Declaration.
Despite ending the blockade, the UAE has retained a rivalrous view of Qatar, which has continued to resist the blockading state’s demands to end its alliance with Turkey. From an Emirati perspective, improved Saudi-Turkish relations would strengthen Qatar’s confidence in its foreign policy without attracting dangerous reprisals.
This is especially true for the Arab Gulf states now competing to re-establish intra-GCC links severed by the blockade. The advent of Emirati-Saudi economic competitiveness for foreign investment in the Gulf, juxtaposed with the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement, could lead to Doha leveraging its relationships with Turkey as a means of thwarting Emirati influence in the Gulf. Again, this is to be viewed within the context of the ongoing Emirati-Qatari rivalry.
“The emerging economic competition between the Saudis and Emiratis provides an opportunity for Qatar’s regional policy.”
In an analysis for the Arab Center in Washington D.C. on December 8, 2021, Turkish analyst Mustafa Gurbuz explains that “the emerging economic competition between the Saudis and Emiratis provides an opportunity for Qatar’s regional policy; despite the UAE’s objections, Doha may actually succeed in assuming a broker role in normalizing Turkish-Saudi relations.”
By aggressively taking some of the edges off its own relations with Turkey, the UAE can offset Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s Turkish ties. While the UAE hopes to stabilize and improve its bilateral ties with Turkey, it does not want Turkey forming anything resembling a zone of influence or a network of partners in its backyard.
In November 2020, Erdogan and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke via telephone, agreeing to improve their bilateral ties and resolve their differences through dialogue. By January 2021, Emirati and Turkish officials had begun exchanging conciliatory statements.
2. Erdogan’s Waning Support of Political Islam
The UAE has long cited Erdogan’s affinity and sponsorship of political Islam across the Middle East, usually under the Muslim Brotherhood banner, as the justification for its militaristic opposition to pro-Turkish states and non-state actors in the region.
The UAE cited Erdogan’s sponsorship of political Islam as justification for its militaristic opposition to pro-Turkish states.
An olive branch as significant as bin Zayed’s $10 billion investment fund for the ailing Turkish economy would be tolerable if it is linked to diluting Erdogan’s regional support for political Islam—whether now or in the near future. This came at a time when moving away from using Islamist groups in the region as a foreign policy tool aligns with Turkey’s current geopolitical priorities.
In March 2021, Erdogan moved to suppress criticism by Brotherhood-run media outlets based in Turkey. He also initiated a bilateral dialogue with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi – Erdogan’s anti-Brotherhood arch-rival – over their various regional disputes.
In December 2021, Turkey then set up a “Parliamentary Friendship Committee” with the House of Representatives (HoR) in Libya, a parallel government during the 2014-2020 Libyan civil war that opposed the Turkish-backed Brotherhood-affiliated Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The HoR had previously aligned itself with Emirati and Egyptian-backed General Khalifa Haftar’s insurrection attempt against the GNA, which took a Turkish military intervention to defeat.
These shifts exposed the limitations associated with sponsoring Political Islam that were becoming more apparent to Turkey. This strategy had initially earned Turkey prominent military, diplomatic, and economic roles and influence overseas, from Libya to Somalia, and Syria and Qatar in the Gulf.
The limitations of sponsoring Political Islam were becoming more apparent to Turkey.
However, in order to forestall fallout with the ardently secular Turkish elites in the military and broader society, Erdogan needs the Islamist policy to generate tangible, long-term economic returns recognized by all sides of the domestic spectrum. In this respect, that strategy, compounded with the severe effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy, increasingly appeared to be an endless and unsuccessful quagmire.
Turkey’s engagement with Egypt followed Cairo’s August 2020 maritime boundary pact with Greece, a much older Turkish rival. The pact was a response to Turkey’s agreement with the Libyan GNA, which had staked a claim to a large part of the East Mediterranean Sea. The move was meant to dissuade regional states from exploring and profiting from newly-discovered offshore gas fields in disputed waters without cutting a deal with Ankara first.
In the standoff, the GNA did not hold up compared to Cairo and Athens’ advantage-in-numbers, featuring clear Cypriot, Emirati, and French support. In contrast, scaling back ties with the Libyan and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a way to patch things up with Egypt— ultimately a less problematic rival than Greece— emerged as the best way forward to diffuse a stalemate and avoid a situation where Turkey’s rivals successfully call its bluff on its East Mediterranean power-play.
3. Turkey’s Pan-Turkic Tilt
The Islamist project’s diminishing returns in the Middle East complement the pan-Turkic initiatives in the South Caucasus and Central Asia that have brought Turkey major geopolitical successes in recent times.
Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan proved decisive in its victory over Armenia during its 2020 war over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. The Russian-brokered treaty concluding the war granted Turkey a direct connection to Azerbaijan for the first time via the Zangezur Corridor through southern Armenia.
This desired Turkic belt through Eurasia is strictly secular and traditionally averse to Islamism.
Turkey’s enhanced leverage over Azerbaijan bolstered Baku’s position as the bridgehead of Turkey’s plans for building a network across the Caspian Sea with Turkic Central Asia. This desired Turkic belt through Eurasia is strictly secular and traditionally averse to Islamism. To be sure, Middle Eastern players are beginning to appreciate the Turkic perspective, which means Erdogan has all the more reasons to tone down Islamist rhetoric and take back policies motivated by Islamism.
Turkey getting pulled away from the Islamist venture in the Middle East by its Turkic world priorities is something the UAE welcomes. Additionally, the Turkic world lies outside the geographical bounds of the historical Ottoman Empire, which the UAE believes Erdogan is trying to rebuild in some shape or form with a ”neo-Ottoman” vision using Islamist proxies.
The Turkish domestic angle is also important. As noted by Turkish strategic analyst Metin Gurcan in a December 2020 Al-Monitor column, the pan-Turkic parties which Erdogan increasingly relies on to prop up his ruling coalition strongly promote a shift to the Turkic world. Gurcan highlights the aforementioned contrast between Turkey’s geopolitical gains from Azerbaijan’s war victory, and its more costly and difficult ventures in the Middle East, as a factor that further strengthens the pan-Turkic’s in Turkish politics.
Bin Zayed’s $10 billion investment fund positions Abu Dhabi to consolidate and take advantage of this trend. Advocates of the Turkic world tilt could point to the Emirati investments as the positive dividends of Turkey dialing down its polarizing power-projection in the Middle East, thus freeing up more time, effort, and resources to expand on Turkic outreach.
The UAE’s decision to include large financial investments as part of its rapprochement with its old nemesis shows its recognition of Turkey as a major regional player whose policies cannot be altered using zero-sum approaches. It also shows that Ankara is open to receiving and taking advantage of large investments from the UAE when its domestic economy is facing its worst crisis in two decades and threatening Erdogan’s hold on power.
Turkey and the UAE will likely continue to disagree on numerous regional issues, but their present bilateral rapprochement appears to be a very calculated shift with mutual benefits.